Friday, July 31, 2009

A New, Electric Look

As you may have noticed, I'm currently tinkering with the look of the blog. I've placed a new logo for the website up as well, although it really is more of a place holder until I can take the time to create a better looking "neon-sign" logo. Besides - I don't know if I can live with myself using a logo designed from Comic Sans.

Anyways, let me know if you like or dislike the new look. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bothering with the Details

Hello again! I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get this week's blog up on time, as the Fresno County Court system once again brought me in as a prospective juror. However, I must have said something to annoy one of the lawyers, as he very quickly dismissed me from the trial. Good news for all of us, as I now can continue with this week's blog entry.

I imagine that when many of us compose, we occasionally find ourself "in the zone," so to speak. In this state, the notes seem to effortlessly spill out of our mind, onto the computer screen, at a pace far faster than normal (whatever that pace may be...see last week's blog for more on this). I know that when this occurs to me, I end up feeling compelled to do whatever it takes to get the notes on the page - such as skipping past all of the "little things" to ensure that the notes are all there.

The little things in question, though, are often not so little.

These little things that I am referring to are details such as dynamics, articulations, phrase markings, expression markings, and tempos. In the heat of the moment, it is often easy to overlook these - after all, they simply aren't as sexy as the notes themselves. I know that in my own experience composing, I will occasionally discover that I've composed an entire phrase or two without placing these details, simply because I was overeager to get the notes themselves on the page. Unfortunately, I have found that this often ends up a compositionally fatal practice, leading to needless extra editing - or worse - complete rewrites. The notes that seemed to come out so effortlessly ended up lacking far more than the details; they also lacked musicality.

Music is, to put it bluntly, far more than notes. Music has expression. Music has character. The same string of notes and rhythms can be performed countless ways, in a variety of styles, moods, and interpretations. These qualities all depend on two things: one, the markings the composer chooses to provide, and two, how the performer chooses to interpret those markings.

When composing into Finale or Sibelius, the expediency and immediacy of note entry sometimes leads the composer to prioritize notes over the musical phrase. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as note entry is the first priority of the programs as well. Both Finale and Sibelius have a large variety of ways to input notes, ranging from point-and-click entry, to keyboard entry in real time, as well as several methods that fall somewhere in-between. The programs are designed to make note entry as easy as possible. This isn't a complaint - far from it, in fact - but rather simply a fact of how these program operate.

An unintended side effect of this is that the remaining details become "second-class citizens" within the program. In Finale, all of these details require the composer to access a separate tool (smart shapes, measure expressions, articulations, etc.) in order to point-and-click the detail into the score. In Sibelius, many of these details are handled by secondary numpad panels, or by typing them in using Command-E (for expressions) or Command-T (for techniques). Slurs and hairpins are likewise handled using their own hot keys. These are not difficult tasks, nor are they time consuming. However, they are all SECONDARY functions in relation to the prime function of note entry. This inevitably leads to the creation of compositions that can best be described as "notes, with a sprinkling of music here and there." This is especially evident in early student compositions, often when the student is already consumed with the creation and development of notes in the first place (with or without notation software!).

For me, I find that in those moments when I unintentionally focus entirely on the notes, I also unintentionally fail to understand the larger emotional quality of my music. Sure - I might have a "general concept" of whether the notes are fast, slow, loud, or soft - but I am often not considering whether those same notes are light, dark, violent, timid, lovely, or sorrowful. Notes alone cannot convey this, and without expressions, articulations, or dynamics to guide me I often have to formulate what those notes are supposed to be well after the creative moment has passed. This, as you might guess, can often lead to less-than-satisfactory results.

So, while it may not be the most expedient method of composing, I do recommend to my students (and anyone else who might ask!) that they input as many of the details as the music demands at the same time as note entry, rather than after the fact. Doing so helps the young composer learn that there is in fact a HUGE difference between a single whole note - naked, and a whole note that "crescendos over the entire length of the bar, from pianissimo to fortissimo, underneath the descriptive marking grotesque." One is a note - the other, for better or worse, is music.


(A brief aside)

To further press my point, allow me to present a portion of my blog entry now "without the details":

when composing into finale or sibelius the expediency and immediacy of note entry sometimes leads the composer to prioritize notes over the musical phrase this shouldnt come as a surprise as note entry is the first priority of the programs as well both finale and sibelius have a large variety of ways to input notes ranging from point and click entry to keyboard entry in real time as well as several methods that fall somewhere in between the programs are designed to make note entry as easy as possible this isnt a complaint far from it in fact but rather simply a fact of how these program operate

Not a pretty sight, eh?


As a final comment, I must give Sibelius a tremendous "high five" for introducing Magnetic Layout in Sibelius 6, a feature which I already have drooled over last week, and one which I must once again drool over this week. This simple-yet-brilliant feature finally allows the composer to focus completely on detail entry WITHOUT having to worry about collisions and score layout. Now, there are no more excuses to enter the details with the notes, as doing so is now just about as immediate and expedient.

So, now I turn this over to all of you reading. When do you find that you enter your details and markings? At the same time as the notes? After the fact?

Until next week then - that is, as long as I don't get called back to jury duty. After all, Fresno also has a federal court.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Go with the "Flow"

Hello everyone! I hope you all have had a musically productive week (well, at least more productive than mine!).

Since last week's post, "The Big Picture," I have found myself preoccupied. You see, that post stirred up a great amount of discussion related to several topics that I didn't anticipate. These included discussions on view mode preference (of which I see I am in the minority based upon my poll), the use of "Staff Sets," and perhaps most surprisingly, a request from a Sibelius engineer as to what additional features could be implemented to help manage "complexity" with composing and arranging. Upon reflection, though, it seemed in my mind that these all related to a single issue - how we manage our own personal work flow.

A large reason I became preoccupied with this topic was because it became very clear though the discussion that there are many features in Sibelius that I simply am not taking advantage of - features that, after experimenting with them for a bit, clearly do assist the composer in one form or another. Many of these features seem focused in two categories - those that provide the user with an increase in speed, and those that help with the "management of complexity." Several, in fact, do both (Sibelius 6's new magnetic layout comes to mind - a godsend feature if I do say so myself).

It made me wonder whether or not I was consciously choosing not to use newer features - if there was a reason that I choose to stick to older, possibly less efficient approaches. For example, I look at features like Sibelius' "Ideas" and think to myself - "Wow! That is SO cool! I'll definitely use that in my next piece!" Yet, to this date I have not taken advantage of it. I can surely see how the feature would assist my creative process, but something prevents me from using it. Is it simply old habits? Or is it something deeper?

After much thought, I've come to the conclusion that I stick to my more old-fashioned approaches not out of laziness, ignorance, or some sense of loyalty to old practices, but rather, because they allow my work flow to match my own creative goals. My work flow has always been about trying to emulate the "pencil and paper" experience on the computer. My goals have never been about working faster or having the computer manage complex ideas for me. It has always been far more important for me to find a work flow that allows me to remain conscious of all tasks that I do, so that in the end writing on the computer was as personal an experience as writing by hand.

In some odd way I actually prefer a slower approach when working in Sibelius. Using the program in such a way forces me to focus on the individual pitches that I compose, rather than inadvertently allowing me to throw too many notes on the page at once (a technique that I affectionately refer to as "vomiting notes"). Additionally, viewing the score in "page view" rather than scroll view or panorama seems essential to my own creative process, since it allow me to see the WHOLE piece as it will look in the end - including empty measures, abbreviated instrument names, page numbers, margins - everything. This is, admittedly, a much slower process than using Panorama/Scroll view, or using Score Sets to see only the staves you need. However, for me, it fits my own compulsive need to see everything at all times.

Of course, there are several newer features that I do enjoy using with great regularity. As mentioned above, Sibelius' "magnetic layout" is, in my opinion, the greatest thing since sliced bread - especially for a composer like me that places dynamics and other markings as I write the notes! I also DO believe that the Ideas panel would fit me in the right situation - I simply haven't really sat down and tried to use it....yet. So, obviously I'm not against the idea of saving time - particularly when it involves something as tedious as fine tuning the score layout.

The fundamental question that I would like to ask everyone thus isn't how one approaches his or her own individualized work flow, but WHY one does. What reasons do you make the work flow choices you make? Is speed a priority? Efficiency? Organization? Or, like me, do you intentionally try to slow yourself down, so as to focus on individual notes? Please share your thoughts!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New poll: View mode preference

I've posted a new poll asking everyone which view mode they prefer when composing. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Big Picture

Hello all! It is time once again for this week's edition of the Electric Semiquaver. This week, I would like to address how to overcome what I like to refer to as "Notation Software Tunnel Vision." This occurs when the composer focuses on a relatively small portion of a score, failing to see how that section fits into the rest of the piece. This is an easy problem to stumble upon when composing in Finale or Sibelius, since the only music on screen at any one time is the section that you are currently writing!

In all honesty, though, this isn't a problem that solely exists in notation software. I was first introduced to this compositional issue as a student myself, when one of my own composition professors encouraged me to compose (by hand) on "very, very large paper." I really didn't understand what my teacher was trying to do at the time - after all, how would larger paper improve my writing??? However, when I tried it out it became apparent how much easier it was for me to put my composition into context with itself. I could see exactly what I had written earlier, compared to what I was currently working on. In essence, I was seeing "the forest from the trees." (This may all seem fairly obvious, but until you actually try it out you don't realize what you are missing!!!)

In music notation software, this is a somewhat harder problem to overcome. Without spending a ridiculous amount of money on a "very, very large monitor," the digital composer is forced to work within the relative confines of the screen that he or she is working on. Tunnel vision is almost unavoidable, since the software makes it impossible to see anything other than what the composer is currently working on (unless someone knows of a way to do split-screen in Finale or Sibelius??? Or perhaps a Finale or Sibelius developer could add that as a new feature in the next version?). This problem is compounded when working on a score for a large ensemble, since inevitably the composer will only be able to see one-half of the ensemble on the screen at any given time - not an ideal way to compose!

It may seem pretty obvious, but the very first thing one should do in this situation is to PRINT their score out as they work on it. Having a hard copy to refer to is essential, as it allows the composer to always have onscreen what he or she is currently composing, rather than constantly scrolling back and forth within your digital score. A hard copy can also be marked up, making editing a much easier process later on (after all, as I often threaten my students who don't bring in hard copies of their score: permanent marker + monitor = new monitor).

If you are interested in seeing beyond the individual pages of the score, here are a couple of other tricks to try:

• Post your print-out onto large sheets of cardboard (34"x22") so you can see up to 8 pages at once.
• Vary your screen view as you compose - work in different magnifications, and in different view modes.
• Make a PDF version of your working score so that you can refer to it in a separate screen window.

And, if you have some money to burn - buy a second monitor to mount your PDF file, side by side with your music notation software.

It should be mentioned that I am a BIG fan of working off of PDFs. They are much more eco-friendly than hard copy print outs, and are surprisingly easy to read from. Of course, you can't physically write on the PDF, so a hard copy print out will still be needed at some point in the creative process (especially if you have a sarcastic composition teacher that likes to threaten his student's laptop monitors with a red Sharpie). If you don't have a way to print PDFs, I highly suggest acquiring a way to do so.

How about you? What ways have you come up with to overcome "Notation Software Tunnel Vision?" Please share your thoughts!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Procrastination 101

This week, I'll be discussing how to procrastinate properly using Sibelius or Finale. Actually, I would, except that I am on vacation, and will thus be delaying my weekly blog post until next week.

In the meantime, I would be more than happy to take suggestions from the seven of you who read this blog as to what signature I should add to my weekly posts ("Happy composing!", which I was just about to write here, just seemed very cheesy to me all of a sudden...). The winner will be given virtual cookies and milk. :)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rinse and Repeat

The use of repetition is, in one form or another, a key concept at the core of most music composition.  On the small scale, musical motives and themes are repeated with variation to develop new material.  This can be seen both in classical compositions, such as in the canons and fugues of Bach, to contemporary film scores and the liberal use of leitmotif in the representation of characters and themes.  On the large scale, whole sections of music are often repeated to create a stable sense of form, as well as a coherent musical rhetoric.  Music form is used as a way for the composer to create an abstract sense of communication to the listener, particularly when no programmatic elements exist.

So, it is only natural then that composers more often than not find themselves using two simple commands embedded in all music notation software to assist them in their use of musical repetition - copy and paste.

Many of you just cringed at the mention of these two commands, and with good reason.  Copy and paste is often abused.  It is one thing to repeat music, but an entirely different thing to repeat the same musical phrase, note-for-note, complete with the same dynamic markings (often placed in the wrong location!), incomplete articulations, awkward phrasing - well, you get the idea.  Copy and paste has been often accused as a tool for the lazy - for the composer who wishes to double their music output in a matter of seconds, rather than try to come up with something "new."

It is this last statement that I intend to address at this moment.  Ironically, I have seen a secondary problem arrive as a result of the misuse of copy and paste that, in some ways, is even worse than the use of copy and paste itself.  In an effort to not appear to use copy and paste (or worse, to be accused of being lazy), the composer eschews repetition altogether!  While repetition without variation can be considered sloppy, the lack of repetition of any sort results in the composition sounding incoherent - a jumbled mess of ideas, many of which don't even belong in the same piece.  (I may be a bit on the conservative side of the composition spectrum here, but I still believe that a good composition will begin with ONE good idea, with all other ideas growing out of that initial seed.)

That is not to say the solution for the composition is to rely on strict repetition only.  Musical motives need to be developed, and part of that development INCLUDES the use of repetition.  Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg's technique of "developing variation," a concept key to the output of many composers in the 20th and 21st centuries, relies upon the creation of musical variation through development.  Developmental processes such as augmentation, diminution, and inversion, all have repetition "built-in" to the technique itself.  Transposing an idea involves the need to repeat it first.  Fragmentation involves the process of repeating a portion of that same idea.  These are all tried and true techniques - nothing revolutionary here.  

The same can be said about the use of large-scale repetition to highlight musical form.  Whole phrases and sections of music are often repeated, albeit often with some amount of variation and editing.  Repeat bars came into use long before copy and paste ever existed.  Finally, let us not forget that contrapuntal forms - canons and fugues - are completely based in the use of structured repetition in multiple voices.  

So, here is my advice.  Let us insert a third item to our phrase of "copy and paste," instead calling it "copy, paste, and edit."  Fundamentally, there really is nothing wrong with using the copy and paste function as long as the composer remembers to edit what they just pasted.  This editing step can take on multiple roles, such as:

• developing the newly pasted material into an extension of the original idea.
• editing out dynamic markings that are redundant, or better yet - changing dynamic markings for musical effect.
• double-checking that all elements that are to be repeated are repeated CORRECTLY (there is nothing more embarrassing than repeating a mistake multiple times through copy-paste).
• checking any newly created counterpoint for dissonance treatment.
• checking that any pasted material is appropriate for the new voice, should that new voice be a different instrument than the original.
• creating substantial changes to material as part of a sectional repetition (in other words, creating an "A-prime" section rather than a strict "A" section in your form).

Of course, this list above is not exhaustive, but is simply a reminder of the many ways that copy and paste can be used effectively, when matched with proper editing afterwards.  

I should mention here that, while I do believe that copy and paste can be a great tool for the composer, I do shy away from "composer tools" plug-ins that perform complete musical processes - augmentation, diminution, transposition, etc. - for the composer.  Using these plug-ins robs the composer of their own creative control, relegating the technique to the machine.  Besides - a composer should know how to perform these techniques on their own, and frankly should WANT to.  These plug-ins are, in my mind, cheats - pure and simple.

I'll conclude with a single thought.  In my lessons, I often compare the creative process of composing as a creative process very similar to that of speech writing.  Both processes rely upon the use of repetition and rhetoric to convey a message - one abstract, the other direct.  Consider this:  if a speech writer were to be asked if it was OK to use copy and paste, I think his or her response might possibly be "Yes we can.  Yes we can.  Yes we can."